The state of Florida is no stranger to election-based controversy, but voters may be heading back to the polls as soon as next year for another hotly contested issue – sports wagering.
After Governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s Seminole Tribe successfully renegotiated the Sunshine State’s gaming laws last year, sports wagering was primed to open at Hard Rock Sportsbook on November 1, 2021.
But weeks later, the operation ceased function and has yet to resume.
What happened? Can it be fixed, and when will Florida enjoy legal sports wagering?
Seminole Tribe – The Key to the Future of Florida Sports Betting
The terms agreed upon by Governor DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe were largely ignored by the state’s legislative body, meaning that on August 1 they were approved automatically. The Seminoles wasted little time, launching Hard Rock Sportsbook online and preparing arrangements with additional industry mainstays.
But later in November, a Florida judge ruled in favor of Florida parimutuel facilities, who argued the new arrangement violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by offering sports wagering via online and mobile sites rather than just on tribal lands. By December, Hard Rock Sportsbook was shuttered online within the state of Florida.
The Seminole Tribe appealed, but no date has been set for the appeal hearing.
Industry leaders, specifically DraftKings and FanDuel, worked to get a sports wagering measure on the ballot in time for Election Day of November 2022, but fell short. So now, all eyes in Florida turn to the future in hopes of seeing sports wagering re-legalized.
Sports Wagering Rules in Florida
It’s important to remember that the following rules were conditions of the renegotiated compact between Governor DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe, which the federal judge ruled to be illegal under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
So while these laws are not set in stone, they provide the best possible snapshot of what Florida sports betting will ultimately resemble once cooler heads prevail.
- Retail sportsbooks (DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM etc.) would be permitted within Seminole Tribe-owned casinos
- An additional condition allowed the Tribe to partner with parimutuel facilities (horse racing tracks, like Gulfstream Park, Hialeah Park, and Tampa Bay Downs, for the most part) to open retail sportsbooks
- And of course, the Tribe was permitted to open its own online sports betting site and partner with retail sportsbook operators
Quite simply, if this agreement is reinstated, Floridians will have ample locations and opportunities to bet on sports. If not, the landscape could change entirely in ways that can’t be predicted. So let’s look at the obstacles and possible solutions to reinstatement.
The initial lawsuit was filed by West Flagler Associates and eventually joined by a separate suit from Monterra, LLC. When the Monterra case was dismissed, the Seminole Tribe filed a motion to dismiss the West Flagler case in its entirety, but this motion was denied just last month.
So the only way forward is via the appeals process, and the case has been assigned a number in the Courts of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribe has ceased the revenue sharing payments agreed upon in the 2021 deal – a loss to the state of Florida totaling about half a billion dollars annually.
State law mandates that an expansion of gaming activities can be approved only via voter approval. The deal brokered by Governor DeSantis was viewed as an extension of a previously existing arrangement rather than an expansion.
However, the voter referendum may be the most logical path forward for Florida sports betting. It won’t happen in 2022, however.
Meanwhile, DraftKings and FanDuel are seizing the opportunity, each spending over $10 million towards an initiative to expand Florida sports betting beyond tribal lands.
The sports wagering giants are joined by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and have turned their eyes towards 2024 in hopes of getting a separate measure on the ballot.
Will There Be Sports Wagering in Florida?
The best argument for saying ‘yes’ is that none of the groups mentioned above – parimutuel facilities, the state government, retail sportsbooks, or the Seminole Tribe – stands to gain anything while sports wagering is forbidden. The entire debate is focused on creating competition within the Florida sports wagering industry.
The compact agreed upon with the Seminoles gave the Tribe a 30-year virtual monopoly on Florida sports betting. Between now and 2052, researchers projected that deal would mean $20 billion in revenue to the state.
So the argument may come down to finding a means of recreating that revenue – if not by reinstating the existing deal, then by any number of measures that may involve the Tribe, the retail sportsbooks, and the facilities controlled by West Flagler Associates.
One thing is for sure – with 13 professional sports teams (MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, NHL) and numerous major Division One schools calling the state home, plus the most robust vacation and tourism industry in the United States, Florida is leaving way too much money on the table by allowing this court battle to persist and not finding a means to legalize sports wagering as soon as possible.
It doesn’t hurt that Governor DeSantis is rumored to have Presidential aspirations in the future either. Successfully negotiating this tricky battle gives him a chance to prove his leadership skills and ability to work both sides of the aisle.
It probably won’t be 2022, but the ‘smart money’ says it won’t be much longer until sports wagering is blooming in the Sunshine State.